Why Municipalities Should Focus on Reducing Rainwater Run-Off Instead of Costly Sewer Upgrades


Source: diego_torres/Pixabay 

Green infrastructure solutions for deficient waste water systems throughout New Jersey are not only effective, but also save a lot of money. That’s why the State Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) recently announced new permits for the state’s 25 utility companies operating combined sewer systems (CSS’s). These permits require affected towns and sewer treatment authorities to create and adopt plans to address the problems triggered by the sewer systems. The state agency is looking for local leaders to employ green infrastructure as a key element of storm water runoff. 

Each CSS collects stormwater runoff, untreated sewage and industrial wastewater in the same pipe. Combined stormwater and sewage can overwhelm treatment plants when it rains, and the toxic slurry is able to flow into rivers through combined-sewer overflows (CSOs). This problem can also spill over (no pun intended) into neighboring communities. With green infrastructure, towns can develop cost-effective measures to discharge storm water before it reaches the sewer system using environmental enhancements. 

Under these permits, entities may propose a variety of approaches to deal with combined-sewer overflows (CSO) problems, as long as they are cost-effective and can meet required reductions in overflows of untreated sewage. The reintroduction of natural and sustainable features such as vegetation, porous asphalt and rain gardens are just some of the measures municipalities across the state are already putting into practice. Local governments can also work with utility authorities to develop innovative, green solutions to keep waterways clean while adding/improving parks, gardens and streetscapes. These tactics have already proven to help address flooding and reduce costs. 

How do communities pay for green infrastructure projects? Many draw from general funds or focus on techniques that are relatively inexpensive. Others set up new fees, taxes and other directed charges, similar to any other public infrastructure repair or improvement. These fees are often applied to new development and other land use alterations and may appear as plan review and permitting fees, or special assessment fees that discourage building in particular locations (like green fields) by charging for projects located in sensitive areas. Some communities are charging private properties a “fee in-lieu” of on-site water quality treatment. This means developers no longer implement on-site water quality treatment practices, but pay into a fund that the municipality can use to finance green infrastructure projects in priority areas. 

Encouraging infill and development over green field construction is ultimately the biggest way to address flooding and keep utility maintenance costs down. A recent study completed in western Australia found that the City of Perth saves $94.5 million for every 1,000 infill lots developed compared with the costs of developing new greenfield sites. 

Capital cost recovery fees, impact fees and real estate taxes are further examples of the many different ways that local governments are generating reliable funding for green infrastructure practices. 

One of the largest, most readily available sources of funding for green infrastructure implementation is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). The CWSRF is a powerful financing program that provides funding for wastewater treatment, stormwater management, nonpoint source abatement and estuary protection projects. While only a small percentage of the CWSRF has been used for green infrastructure projects, the trend is gaining momentum. 

Combined-sewer overflows can have a harmful impact on the environment. The smartest solution is to reduce the amount of rainwater run-off before it inundates a sewer system. Both infill development and green infrastructure projects achieve this goal at a fraction of the cost when compared to upgrading combined sewer systems.With State Agencies supporting these practices, developing the necessary plans are becoming as critical as they are effective. 

This post was originally published in the New Jersey State League of Municipalities website in June 2016.


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